Russia's luvvies stage show of unity for Yeltsin

Clowns, wizards, actors, pop stars and Russia's equivalent of Bob Monkhouse are being rolled out by Boris Yeltsin's campaign team in a final effort to ensure the president's re-election next Wednesday.

To cries of "foul" from the camp of Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist challenger, the Russian television and entertainment industry is presenting a united front sending out the message: "Vote for Boris Nikolayevich."

The endorsements from Russia's best-loved luvvies are well-timed, for Mr Yeltsin himself has mysteriously dropped out of sight since last Wednesday, cancelling three campaign trips. His press spokesman, Sergei Medvedev, assured reporters that nothing was amiss, saying the president was "in good form" and had merely lost his voice after a hectic schedule.

In Mr Yeltsin's absence, the job of luring voters has fallen to men such as Yuri Longo, a popular entertainer and self-styled wizard whose bag of tricks includes televised seances and raising the dead from a Moscow morgue. "The election is a huge psychic battle for him and this extra- sensory help is very important," the wizard opined, as he forecast a Yeltsin victory.

Yuri Nikulin, a 75-year-old clown who is one of Russia's most admired circus acts, offered these words of support in a television advertisement: "Nothing human is alien to him, and that wins my favour." Recalling that Bill Clinton plays the saxophone and that Mr Yeltsin, perhaps the worse for a tipple or two, once seized a conductor's baton and gesticulated at a military band in Berlin, the clown commented: "Clinton plays sax and our president conducts. I think it's better to be a conductor."

Leonid Yakubovich, the Monkhouse-like host of a television game show called Field of Miracles, has joined the Yeltsin bandwagon. Together with a familiar face from Russian television on Sunday mornings, Yuri Nikolayev, he took off he took off from a Moscow airport last Thursday in an aircraft covered in banners proclaiming "Yeltsin is Our President".

In an extravaganza funded largely by a pro-Yeltsin advertising agency, Premier SV, the two television personalities are flying to five cities in the run-up to election day and putting on shows for free. "They realise the importance of the current situation," said a Premier SV spokesman, Konstantin Likutov.

In a country where millions are absorbed with star-gazing and the paranormal, something would be wrong if the Yeltsin team had not secured the thumbs- up from a leading astrologer. Cue Pavel Globa, who has publicly predicted a Yeltsin victory "by a few hundred votes" and says that this year's alignment of stars resembles that of 1612-13, when Russia emerged from its politically turbulent Time of Troubles.

Aware that the main danger of defeat lies in a low turn-out on Wednesday, Mr Yeltsin's strategists are encouraging the anti-Communist youth vote with the slogan "vote or lose".

Endorsements have also flowed in from a more conservative sector of Russian society - the Cossacks. With memories still sharp of the persecution they suffered under Soviet Communism, there was little doubt the Cossacks would avoid Mr Zyuganov like the plague.

The unashamedly pro-Yeltsin line taken by Russian state television and most newspapers caused Mr Zyuganov to lodge a complaint last Wednesday with the Central Election Commission about unfair media access. He also challenged Mr Yeltsin to a televised debate, a proposal that the president brushed aside by saying he would not talk with "well-fed party demagogues" and "nomenclature has-beens".